What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? That's probably pretty apt for Gun Media and developer Illfonic, who've been through the ringer on horror title Friday the 13th (F13), which started its life as an homage to the genre, called Summer Camp.
Even with the F13 IP rights, many doubted that the project could succeed. To make matters worse, the small team's inexperience led to some pretty horrid technical woes that could have sunken the ship outright. And yet it didn't. Now Gun has revealed to GamesIndustry.biz that within two months the game has managed to sell over 1.8 million units.
Gun Media boss and Friday the 13th co-creator Wes Keltner tells me, "This entire project has been a huge learning experience for both Gun and Illfonic. We will be the first to admit that we weren't ready for the huge influx of players that hit us day one.
"We looked at our player numbers from the beta, along with pre-orders and then added a 30% cushion. That's how we set up our servers and database for launch. We were soooo wrong. 100,000 players hit us in the first 20 minutes, and our servers melted. Our first weekend was chaos. The entire team slept at their desks trying to keep up with demand. It's an experience I'll never forget. With our small budget, we couldn't afford a large scale QA effort. We did a PC beta, and gleaned a lot of great data from that. But again, we weren't ready for the tidal wave of players."
Keltner won't share the exact budget, but he notes, "The total we spent creating this game, would only cover half the animation budget for AAA games. But we made the most with what we had. As for being profitable, we were in the black quickly. However, we have reinvested that profit directly back into F13 in the form of new content (maps, characters, etc) and our ongoing server costs."
"Five years ago publishers would be frantically hiring mock reviewers to try to get a good estimate of what their Metacritic score would be. Today, they have meetings where they ask the entire team: 'Does our game stream well?'"
It's a good thing that profits started coming in, as Gun Media had to reinvest in QA to address the server problems, and that's an investment that continues to this day as the problems are still not completely ironed out.
He continues, "As the player count continued to rise, a memory leak became apparent, which was difficult to find until the build went out into the wild and hundreds of thousands of players began playing. This showed up primarily on the Xbox SKU and we shifted our efforts to finding where this leak was occurring. We released a patch recently that helps, but it's still not a 100% fix. We've brought on two other teams to help us locate the source, and our partners at Microsoft and Epic (UE4) are helping us day and night to completely fix this issue.
"Our biggest challenge is team size and experience. This is our first time at 'the big table' and we have stumbled throughout this process. What we lack in experience we make up for with passion and heart. However, in some cases this weakness is also a strength. We are nimble and we communicate internally very effectively. I'm aware there are huge bonuses to having 300+ people working on a title, but there's something about having a team of 30 that makes this experience intimate. There was nothing about making this game that felt like an assembly line. Which again, I think was what allowed us to be authentic and listen to fans."
Interestingly, with a Metacritic score of 61 and some reviews as low as 40, the press wasn't especially kind to F13, and yet the property clearly resonated with fans. Keltner believes that a big part of it was, again, on the technical side, but more to the point, he sees the media landscape changing dramatically to favor the influencers over traditional media. That's clearly evident from what the big publishers have been doing at E3 and just in their day-to-day outreach with the community.
"I think it's less about a mismatch and more about a complete upheaval of how consumers research and ultimately decide on purchasing a game. Metacritic scores used to be the lifeblood of games. For today's consumer, it's not as relevant," Keltner says.
"I think there are two reasons for this; Early Access and Content Creators (YouTubers and streamers). In my opinion, these are the two biggest disruptions in our industry, with Twitch probably being the biggest game changer. Five years ago publishers would be frantically hiring mock reviewers to try to get a good estimate of what their Metacritic score would be. Today, they have meetings where they ask the entire team: 'Does our game stream well?'"
He adds, "As for reviews and feedback, many of the low scores and negative impressions were based on performance and server issues, and not gameplay. At the end of the day it's difficult to rate a game highly if it isn't functioning as intended. So from a design perspective, it is great to know we succeeded. Looking at every single one of those reviews; it becomes obvious that people like the game, they enjoy playing. We can hold our head up high knowing that we created a fun game. The challenge now becomes a technical one. Once the technical issues get ironed out, we feel like consumers will get to experience our full vision. There's also a rise in 'Community Multiplayer Games' which only a handful of games are focusing on right now and they are proving to be a success and a shift in the industry."
Another possible boost for F13 and Gun Media came from the '80s nostalgia wave in entertainment currently. It's one of the reasons a show like Stranger Things on Netflix has done so well. Even people who aren't old enough to remember the '80s seem to be enjoying the themes and the horror genre from the time, which was led by F13 along with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween.
"There does seem to be a love-affair occurring around '80s themed entertainment," Keltner agrees. "Nostalgia plays a role, but I feel that authenticity is the bigger factor. That goes for F13 and Stranger Things in my opinion. I think today's consumer is bombarded with products and entertainment that, while might be enjoyable, feel fabricated and formulaic. When something comes along that is genuine, it's refreshing and rare. When you create something that has both nostalgia and authenticity at the core, it garners a deeper appreciation from your audience. And I do feel it is one of the reasons the game has been successful. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have a globally recognized IP attached.
"[And] there does seem to be a large portion of younger players that are experiencing the IP for the first time via our game. They all know 'Friday the 13th' as well as Jason. His hockey mask is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. However, we do get a lot of messages from players that are either watching the films for the first time, or are going back to watch them again. It's rewarding when they mention how well we nailed the look and feel of those films, especially the first two to three films in the series. What I found most interesting was hearing from hardcore fans of the films, going back to watch them again after playing our game. They watch and enjoy the films in a totally new way thanks to the game. That warms the heart."
Indeed, nothing quite warms the heart like a machete to a person's face. Jokes aside, Gun's newfound success with F13 wouldn't have been possible if the company didn't take a proactive approach early on. Many indie teams neglect their marketing push until it's too late.
"Some teams think it's a 'Field of Dreams' type of scenario; you build it, they will come. I've met several small teams that have this impression and few of them seem to rise above the noise," Keltner says. "With F13 we focused on a healthy mixture of traditional press and content creators/streamers. Of course, having the F13 IP is a huge advantage. There's an innate ability for that license to open doors. One mistake that teams make is that don't start thinking about marketing/PR until closer to launch. We were meeting with traditional press outlets nearly two years before launch.
"Even before we had the F13 license, and we were 'Summer Camp', we were reaching out to the press. Going to conventions is also a great way to get some face time with your favorite journalist. But the biggest mistake is waiting too late to start the PR engine. The same amount of energy and thought that you put into gameplay mechanics, features and content, should go into your PR and marketing. Sure there are stories out there of two or three people making a game, with very little talk in the press, and they hit big. But why would you put so much of your time and energy into a project, and then bet it all that lightning will strike?"
"If you get a chance to pitch your game to publishers, don't take their comments to heart. Don't give up or give in to their suggestions"
Now that the money is coming in, Gun wants to make sure its fans know that it's putting resources back into F13, not only to continue to eliminating technical issues but to keep the content fresh.
"Our number one priority right now is stability and squashing bugs," Keltner says. "That's what all of our engineers are focusing on. We've also nearly doubled our team size to help with this issue. But our content/art teams are free to work on new content, and that's what we've been doing. Players can expect new maps, characters, Easter eggs and other great updates in the near future. I think fans are really going to enjoy what we have planned, as some of this content comes directly from player feedback/requests, while some others are surprises we've had up our sleeves for several months now."
It's been a long road for Gun, and Keltner and his team have learned a lot from the experience, but perhaps the biggest lesson for other small teams out there is to just believe in yourself. If you're passionate about your project and you have a great vision for your game, don't let the industry get you down.
"If you get a chance to pitch your game to publishers, don't take their comments to heart," Keltner advises.
"Don't give up or give in to their suggestions. We met with publishers at several trade shows to pitch F13 in an effort to raise funds for the game. Here's what they said: We don't think there's a market for this type of game. Games based on film properties don't sell well. Players aren't looking for an asymmetrical multiplayer focused game. The gameplay might be too simplified, consumers want more complexity. Have you considered toning down the gore for a more family-friendly experience?"